High schooler’s joke ‘incites panic’

Shelley Blundell

Boy suspended for comment to friends

Scott Watkins, a sophomore at Jackson High School in Canton, was given in-school suspension in December after making a comment about the weather to his peers.

Credit: Beth Rankin

At first glance, Scott Watkins may appear to be little different from the average American teenager. With his constantly color-changing mohawk and his tight-fitting punk attire, he may even scare some of his peers.

But he’s no terrorist.

On Dec. 1 and 2 of 2004, Watkins, a Jackson High School sophomore, was put in Alternative Day Assignment — or in-school suspension — for breaking the school’s code No. 30: Inciting a panic.

Early morning of Dec. 1, Watkins had jokingly told a group of friends, “It looks like the end of the world out there, like we’re all going to die,” in reference to both the bad weather and recent power outages at the school.

Later that day, Watkins was called to the assistant principal’s office and questioned about what he said. The school’s police officer was present, and Watkins said the assistant principal, Laurie Langenfeld, told him a teacher had approached her, concerned over what he had said.

“I don’t understand why it was such a big deal — I was just joking around with a group of my friends, and then I was called down to explain what I was talking about, like I was a terrorist or something,” Watkins said.

He filled in a form for the school, explaining what he said, why he said it and what he meant by what he said. He was also told to include the names of the students he had spoken to.

“It was about a page of writing, basically me explaining why I said what I said. It was just a joke. It all seems stupid to me,” Watkins said.

Ashley Marzec, a friend of Watkins’ who was present when he made the statement, said she couldn’t understand why the school took such a hard line over his statements.

“We were sitting around in the morning, like we always do, and Scott said, ‘Wow, it looks like the end of the world out here, like we’re all going to die,’” Marzec said.

Marzec asked Watkins why he said that and asked if he was speaking about something hazardous,

and he said, “No, nothing like that, I’m just joking.”

Later, when Marzec was called to the assistant principal’s office and asked to fill in a form explaining the incident, she laughed and said she couldn’t understand what the big deal was.

“I told them and wrote in my form that I knew he was joking and that I didn’t feel threatened by what he said,” Marzec said.

Later that day, Langenfeld searched Watkins’ locker. Some students said they had heard there were weapons in his locker, Watkins said.

Langenfeld found nothing illegal or hazardous in his locker but told him it was still a very serious situation and not at all a joking matter. Watkins sat in suspension for the rest of the day, where he did not receive the lunch to which he was entitled, Watkins said.

On Watkins’ official notification of in-school suspension letter, which was served almost two weeks after the incident, he was told he broke the code because he was heard saying, “We’re all going to die,” and the statement was considered threatening to students.

“At first, I thought the whole thing was ridiculous,” said Greg Watkins, Scott’s father. “Scott told us what happened on the first day, and I thought once they got the whole story, that would be the end of it.”

When Scott returned home on the second day and said he had served another full day of in-school suspension, Greg was baffled.

“I called the principal (Richard Campbell) the next week and told him I felt (Scott’s suspension) was way too much of a punishment for what happened,” Greg said. “He explained to me that they must treat every situation like this seriously, and when students are threatened the school must investigate the threat.”

But Greg said the principal never defined what the school considered a threat.

Langenfeld said she was unable to discuss affairs pertaining to students.

“I can say that an in-school suspension does not go on the student’s permanent record,” Langenfeld said.

Scott still remains concerned about future ramifications of the incident.

“I want to apply for classes at Hoover (High School) next semester — would you want a kid in your class that had been put in suspension for inciting a panic? I wouldn’t,” Scott said.

Scott also said the officer told him when they were alone he felt the incident had gotten out of hand.

“We were sitting there, (Langenfeld) had left to deal with something else, and he turned to me and said, ‘This pretty stupid, huh?’ He also said he felt it had been blown way out of proportion, which pretty much all my friends said in their forms to the school,” Scott said.

Scott spoke with the principal the Monday following the incident and said the principal explained why he had been placed on in-school suspension.

“He said the situation wasn’t funny and that it was considered a threat,” Scott said.

“The assistant principal told me on the second day that she had to stay until 5 p.m. (the first day), fielding phone calls from distressed parents worrying about bomb threats. Why didn’t those students who got the story wrong and lied about what happened also get suspended for inciting a panic?”

Contact general assignment reporter Shelley Blundell at [email protected].